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Back on Trek

Apr 20, 2009 12:00 PM, By Michael Goldman

How J.J. Abrams led the Star Trek revival.


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The Delta Vega ice planet, which features some of the most sophisticated CG creatures in Star Trek history, took advantage of extensive second-unit work led by Visual Effects Supervisor/Second Unit Director Roger Guyett.

The Delta Vega ice planet, which features some of the most sophisticated CG creatures in Star Trek history, took advantage of extensive second-unit work led by Visual Effects Supervisor/Second Unit Director Roger Guyett.
Photo: industrial Light and Magic. TM & © 2009 by Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Visual effects

Guyett says the design and surfacing work done on the very recognizable starship Enterprise was another crucial challenge for ILM. Abrams had his team design a sleeker, more contemporary version of the ship, and Guyett adds that ILM lovingly researched the nuances of the ship’s surface and pedigree in order to get it just right.

“Our design is more contemporary—the same silhouette as the original, but in many respects, sleeker and bigger in scale,” Guyett says. “We never thought about shooting miniatures for it—that just didn’t suit the way we were working, and CG has come so far from the earlier Star Trek eras, so there was really no reason to. But we do still have one of the original Enterprise models here at ILM, so we certainly studied it, and we even brought in [model maker] John Goodson, who had worked on earlier Star Trek films to help us figure out how to paint the CG Enterprise. He helped us build out a CG concept to match how they used interference paint [a paint emulsion that lets you see opposite colors at certain angles when painted over dark or light colors] on the surface so that the ship’s panels divided up to create a geometric look.”

Guyett adds that ILM also benefitted from shader R&D work it has done in recent years for several big effects films, in terms of finalizing the look of the Enterprise.

“We built upon that research, further developing [Pixar] RenderMan shader sets that use HDR [high-dynamic-range imaging] in unique ways, allowing for even more photo¬realistic lighting models,” he says. “I’m very pleased with the look we were ultimately able to achieve, and I have to really tip my hat to our crew for devising some ingenious techniques.”

There were myriad effects ILM and the other vendors on the project (Digital Domain, Lola Visual Effects, and Svengali Visual Effects) had to grapple with, ranging from Star Trek favorites such as phasers, transporters, warp signatures, and the like to big-bang imagery such as an ice planet, black holes, a planet collapsing, a space-jump sequence, space battles between starships, and a veritable boatload of exploding stuff.

Guyett says the production went to great lengths to maintain the feeling of realism in these effects as well, by doing extensive scientific research on how explosions and other reactions occur in space. Abrams even hired Carolyn Porco, a science adviser from NASA who was the leader of the imaging project for the Cassini satellite mission. Abrams met Porco at the 2007 TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Conference, and he invited her to add her astronomical expertise to the mix.

“In early years, if you blew something up in space, you just composite in the elements and that’s it, like any other explosion,” Guyett says. “But we wanted more reality, more pyro-type effects to simulate the physics of the way things explode in space. We studied and argued at length about how things would behave if you don’t have gravity. ILM has done so many explosions for so many years that we knew how to do a lot of physically based volumetric explosions.”

Other effects work was less complex, but equally important to the movie. Star Trek’s classic aliens and new aliens, for instance, were largely created traditionally—with prosthetics and makeup. The movie, however, does feature two CG creatures on a grander scale than anything from Star Trek’s past for the Delta Vega ice planet sequence—creatures designed by Neville Page, who also handled the movie’s Romulan makeup design work.

The movie also includes an innovative approach to digital makeup, making at least one actress’ face appear truly out of this world. She plays an alien with distorted human features, and Guyett says that distortion was achieved by emulating a technique from, of all things, a Björk music video.

“We called it the Cunningham Effect, because the technique was inspired by a video directed by Chris Cunningham,” Guyett says. “They took a human face and distorted the features digitally. We used that video as a point of reference. People have done it before, but that video was what got our attention. We took a woman with refined, clean features and just distorted her features—particularly her eyes—to make her look somewhat human, but have an unsettling quality. We did that for a character from a new alien race.”

Guyett’s contribution also included his second-unit directing work—work that Abrams says saved the production numerous headaches solving problems for visual-effects scenes, particularly sequences from the ice planet and for an effect called “the space jump.”

Guyett, who was heading second unit on a feature film for the first time, credits his years of experience working with “some of the great second-unit directors—guys like Vic Armstrong, Peter MacDonald, Simon Crane, and others” for making the second unit so efficient. He emphasizes that his dual role was particularly important because of the practical realities of modern, big-budget filmmaking—especially where visual effects are concerned.

“When you look at production costs, you don’t want to create issues that, quite frankly, the skillset of [the filmmakers] should allow you to overcome later, or do more efficiently, if you plan it correctly,” Guyett says. “The burn rate of a first-unit production is a lot of money. If it takes an hour to set up a greenscreen, that can translate to tens of thousands of dollars for something you might be able to do later in post for $5,000. So you need to know that in advance and build it into your plan. The way the business works right now, the footprint [of visual effects] needs to be minimal. Visual effects was always very maligned for slowing things down. Now, with planning, we can speed things up, and J.J. is the type of director who recognizes that.”

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